by Matthew Bunson

From 1976 until 1983, with the fall of the military dictatorship that had ruled for decades, Argentina was plagued by the so-called Guerra Sucia (“Dirty War”), an era of brutal oppression and violence during which the regime killed between 13,000 and 30,000 citizens. The chief targets of the campaign were left-leaning writers, politicians, trade-unionists and guerillas opposed to the dictatorship. Many thousands of those arrested became part of the “disappeared ones” (the Desaparecidos), mostly women and children who were taken and never seen again. Perhaps as many as 6,000 more people died among the military and the supporters of the regime, slain by the militants and guerillas.

The terrible events of the Dirty War impacted the life of Father Bergoglio. He had the task of trying to keep his priests safe and to walk a fine and dangerous line with the government. Some of his priests became targets of the dictatorship because of their associations with the guerillas and also their open opposition to the government. He urged the priests of the province not to give in to the temptation to take up arms and surrender their lives to violence and hatred.

Vatican spokesman Father Lombardi addresses media in this file photo. CNS photo

Years later, after Bergoglio had been named the archbishop of Buenos Aires, he was accused by some human rights groups of not doing enough to resist the regime, and accusations even were made that he colluded with the dictators. They point to the case of the 1976 kidnapping and torture of two Jesuit priests, Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics, in which Bergoglio supposedly turned a blind eye. In 2010, then Cardinal Bergoglio testified he worked behind-the-scenes to prevent their murder and to secure their release.

In 2000, acknowledging the failings of some Church leaders in the Dirty War, Bergoglio, by then archbishop of Buenos Aires, called on the Church in Argentina to offer penance for the failings of the past.

Unsurprisingly, the allegations resurfaced after the papal election. When asked March 15 about the accusations, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi denounced them, saying, “The campaign against Bergoglio is well-known and dates back to many years ago. It has been made by a publication that carries out sometimes slanderous and defamatory campaigns. The anticlerical cast of this campaign and of other accusations against Bergoglio is well-known and obvious.”

Excerpted from Matthew Bunson's article "New pope a humble, yet ardent preacher," published in OSV Newsweekly, 3/31/13.